For the past few months, a small group of in-the-know beer fans have gathered at an anonymous storefront building in Seminole Heights to share a private indulgence. Craft beers, directly from a well-hidden, almost secret brewery.
Not a secret for long, however.
Cold Storage Craft Brewery is close to opening its brew house to the general public, and is renovating its sparse tasting room into a full-fledged bar to serve up their increasingly popular beers like Florida Avenue Ale, Copperhead Ale and Betchy Brown.
"The craft beer industry is really taking off in popularity," said Bruce Talcott, one of three owners of Cold Storage. "In Florida, there were just a few great brewers, so the time was right."
The single-story, white storefront building at Florida Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard used to be a Kash n' Karry, and for a time was a warehouse for a security equipment company.
Talcott had long been a home brewer, making his own beers as a hobby while working as a logistics executive for Verizon Communications.
He retired in 2007, but soon joined up with two partners – an entrepreneur, Brent Berthy, and Andy DeLaParte, who used to own Cold Storage Café in downtown Tampa.
The three partners moved into the Florida Avenue location in July 2010, and enjoyed a huge jumpstart thanks to Busch Gardens. The theme park was phasing out an on-site brewery after the park's parent company sold the property to an investment group, and the brewing kettles and other equipment went on the market.
Cold Storage acquired at least two fermenting tanks, two conditioning tanks and one brewing kettle – saving the partners thousands of dollars in costs. By December 2010, they sold their first batch.
Business started rolling when they signed up large beer distributors, including Pepin Distributing. Now they have other distributors, such as Great Bay Distributors in Pinellas County, plus others in Orlando, and Polk and Manatee counties.
More than 150 bars and restaurants in three counties now carry their beers, and Cold Storage found a bottling partner that's helped put their beers into Publix, Sweetbay, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, Total Wine and some convenience stores like Circle K and 7-Eleven.
Volume reached 1,300 barrels last year, and they're on pace to grow that by 50 percent this year.
The main brew
For now, they're sticking with five core beers.
The main brew is Florida Avenue Ale, which they call a "transitional" beer that's light in flavor that bartenders can offer to patrons who normally like Budweiser or Miller, but want to try something new. Notably, it lacks the sharp taste of many mass-produced beers.
There is a Florida Avenue Blueberry variety that's popular for summer and has both a berry scent and slight berry taste that lingers. There is an India Pale Ale that's also a lighter weight and has a sharper taste.
There is a Copperhead brew that's richer and has a hoppier taste, and is used by some chefs in the region for the base of a beer reduction sauce.
And there is a Betchy Brown that's a deep, almost black color with flavors of chocolate and coffee. "Betchy" is a slang term with several definitions – the most polite being the nickname of an exciting and confident woman who doesn't whine.
Increasing number of brewers
The ability to make that kind of variety puts Cold Storage in a growing pack of craft brewers in the Tampa region, including Tampa Bay Brewing Co., Cigar City Brewing, Big Storm Brewing, Saint Somewhere Brewing Co., Dunedin Brewery and others. That's just part of a nationwide growth in the craft brewing trend that began with neighborhood, on-site brewpubs.
Compared to mass-production beers, the craft brewing segment grew 13 percent by volume and 15 percent by dollar sales, according to the Brewers Association that tracks craft brewers. That's growing the relatively small 5.7 percent share of the market, and retail sales grew from $7.6 billion in 2010 to $8.7 billion. More brewers are joining the game as well, with 250 brewery openings in 2011. Compare that to overall U.S. beer sales that fell 1.3 percent.
The Cold Storage beers are popular with local bars as an alternative.
The Dale 1891 Gastro Pub started carrying the blueberry variety just months after opening last autumn, and will likely start carrying the Florida Avenue variety soon. "It's a great beer," said bar manager Brent Burt. "And it sells consistently well."
For now, the focus at Cold Storage is the huge effort to maintain consistency in the brewing process, and get the beer out the door.
With a grand total of four employees, everyone helps on "kegging" day when they go through a rapid-fire process of washing hundreds of kegs, then draining the kettles, re-filling the kegs, roll them across a make-shift plywood table and heave them onto the shipping pallets for a line of distributors' trucks waiting at the back door.
When the facility does open as a bar, they still plan to keep it quiet, and have very early closing times so as not to bother neighbors. "We hope to make this the beginning of people's night," he said. "Not the end."